One idea I used to hear a lot about was that when people are near-death and saved by medical science that they sometimes see "a light at the end of a tunnel" in a vision.

Today I read about an article about a new best-seller from an ambitious 4-year-old in Nebraska:

'I met great granddad...and he had wings': Boy who 'went to heaven' is now best selling author.

Here's his #1 New York Times Bestselling book "Heaven is for Real" on Amazon:

The only problem is that I remember seeing shows on TV that suggest near-death experiences can be repeated in a controlled environment.

Is there any evidence to suggest that near-death experiences and "the light at the end of the tunnel" have a scientific explanation?

  • 6
    I'll just add this, from a personal point of view (since it happened to me). There were no "drugs" and no sport/ situation before hand. What I was able to notice was that the loss of vision (after the heart stopped) start at the periphery of the eye, and vision diminished until only the "white light", which in truth was the environmental light (in my case the sun) before blacking out completely. Think of it as when you look a light for a few second than instantly close your eye: it's the same phenomenon but inversed. I do hope that help anyone interested in this subject. Something like this th
    – user22764
    Nov 9, 2014 at 19:44

4 Answers 4


There is ample scientific explanations for the physiological reactions that people experience. From PubMed (my emphasis):

The Near-Death Experience (NDE) is a dissociative mental state with characteristic features. These can be reproduced by ketamine which acts at sigma sites and blocks N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) linked phencyclidine (PCP) receptors to reduce ischaemic damage. Endogenous ligands, alpha and beta-endopsychosin, have been detected for these receptors which suggests an explanation for some NDE's: the endopsychosins may be released in abnormal quantity to protect neurons from ischaemic and other excitotoxic damage, and the NDE is a side effect on consciousness with important psychological functions.

The light in the tunnel effect is an easy one, since I have personally experienced it numerous times in a high-G environment. Your eyes naturally create a tunnel effect as they start to lose oxygen.

As for seeing loved ones, in the case of this particular book, that is more likely a post hoc occurrence for financial gain as well as societally influenced expectations. The personal history and background of the boy Colton, and the author Todd Burpo, align exactly with what they wrote about (isn't it funny that no one ever experiences a "vision" that would be opposed to their expectations and personal history, like a christian seeing Vishnu for instance?).

And it is established that autobiographical memories can be implanted in individuals, and that children are especially susceptible to this.

Loftus (1997) investigated memory distortion and the relation with the degree of confidence in the existence of a false memory. She calls this phenomenon the "misinformation effect". She observed that if witnesses of an event are later exposed to new and misleading information about it, their recollections become distorted (Loftus, 1997). Loftus was able to empirically demonstrate this phenomenon with autobiographical memories. With corroboration from the participants' family members, Loftus was relatively successful at implanting false autobiographical memories.

EDIT TO ADD: I just found this article today that is relevant to this answer.

This week, in “The neurology of near-death experiences“, Alex debunks the religious trappings that attach to the “out-of-body” and similar experiences that occur in conjunction with operations and medical episodes. In particular, he shows that experiences such as dreamlike states, tunnel vision, and leaving and returning to one’s body are all phenomena that have well-understood medical causes. Some of them can even be reproduced by stimulating people’s brains.

I suggest anyone interested in the subject check out the links.

  • 22
    "...since I have personally experienced it numerous times in a high-G environment" <- awesome. Mar 25, 2011 at 14:08
  • 5
    Video of it is disturbing. When you wake up grom G-LOC, the whole "funky chicken" is totally beyond recall, but I do recall the tunnel and grey out effect. Our bodies do all sorts of weird things! Don't even get me started on sleep paralysis and a whole host of other things our bodies do that the average layperson is totally unaware of. Mar 25, 2011 at 14:10
  • 6
    As I said, "more likely". All evidence suggest the visions aligned perfectly with the expectations of the 4 year old child and stories he had been told, and the personal outlook of the ghost writer who has made no secret of his belief in a European, blonde, blue eyed jesus figure. Mar 26, 2011 at 4:03
  • 3
    Done DuckMaestro, with additional back up of the phenomenon that I am sure the now 11 year old boy is repeating. Mar 26, 2011 at 14:25
  • 8
    I dislike the Australian billionaire Kerry Packer, but I respect what he had to say about the "light at the end of the tunnel": after being clinically dead for eight minutes following his first heart attack, he said "I've been on the other side and let me tell you, son, there's fucking nothing there."
    – John Lyon
    Jul 29, 2011 at 5:24

There is a fairly comprehensive article on the topic at

Near-death experience (NDE) - The Skeptic's Dictionary - Skepdic.com

Some details from one study:

Blackmore attributes the feelings of extreme peacefulness of the NDE to the release of endorphins in response to the extreme stress of the situation. The buzzing or ringing sound is attributed to cerebral anoxia and consequent effects upon the connections between brain cells (op. cit., 64).


One popular explanation is that near-death experiences are due to Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic drug produced natually, in small amounts, in the brain. It is speculated that large amounts of DMT are released during near-death experiences, though I don't know of any studies that confirm this.

Dr. Rick Strassman, while conducting DMT research in the 1990s at the University of New Mexico, advanced the hypothesis that a massive release of DMT from the pineal gland prior to death or near death was the cause of the near death experience (NDE) phenomenon. Several of his test subjects reported NDE-like audio or visual hallucinations.

Interestingly enough, this brain-chemical is also hypothesized to be the cause of alien abductions:

Several subjects also reported contact with 'other beings', alien like, insectoid or reptilian in nature, in highly advanced technological environments where the subjects were 'carried', 'probed', 'tested', 'manipulated', 'dismembered', 'taught', 'loved' and even 'raped' by these beings

  • This answer itself is HIGHLY skeptical. There's no proof that the pineal glan produces DMT. However, the pineal gland does produce melatonin (our "sleep" drug), which is structurally similar. furthermore the "building blocks" to creat dimethyltryptamine all exist within the pineal, and many theory as to why the pineal is positioned where it is, and its overactive security mechanism are intriguing and may point to DMT production in high stress situations (birth, death and NDE)
    – rickyduck
    Oct 11, 2012 at 20:00
  • 2
    @rickyduck There was a 2013 publication that found DMT in rat pineal glands via LC/MS/MS so there is no reason to be skeptical of the production of DMT in and of itself. The "why" aspect is highly speculative though.
    – rjzii
    Oct 13, 2015 at 0:47

I have a bucket of random thoughts to this.

Two months ago, I saw two broadcasts in the Swiss TV, LANG=de_CH about near-death experiences, the first being a kind of report, and the second a talk. The first of the videos isn't available anymore (only to buy on DVD/VHS) and few wordings and a link to literature remains. I can try to give a brief conclusion.

At most, the broadcasting station, which is a federal, not a private station, is serious, tends to higher culture and quality, but when it comes to religion - well... . Now the Swiss is, afaik, mostly protestantism, at least the German speaking part of it; two of the first popular heretics origins from the Swiss, Zwingli and Calvin. But not all of the religious people believe in near-death experiences. My impression was, that the report couldn't decide, whether to support the claims of NDE or not. They hadn't much material, some witnesses from hearsay, and hadn't much against, but mixed it - for my feelings just to keep the interest high. If you debunk such a claim in the first minutes you can stop the video after 5 Minutes. After the report, there was a talk which is today still available, but might vanish in near future: Talk with Judith Hardegger and sociologist of religion, Hubert Knoblauch, again, language de_CH., duration about 30 min.

I don't remember much from the video. People, talking about a tunnel with light, of cause. And an experiment, but which was planned, at least not yet finished: Since people often experience such NDE when being in a surgery, and often claim, that they leave their body (out-of-body experience, OOBE) and floating at the top of the room, looking down towards their body, the experimenter placed some kind of beamer at the top, which displayed simple figures in a random way, so that they could only be seen from above, and that the doctor and other people wouldn't know what was displayed, but a floating ghost would be able to see them. Or not. Which would show, that they weren't really out of body, floating around.

Now I try to summarize the talk. It is a different video, but the scientist had just seen the other video. It's not my opinion, which I report, but the opinion of the sociologist, which I try to repeat in condensed form:

  • His viewpoint is not natural sciences, but sociological, psychological. He is interested in what the people think it is, how they feel, and how deeply impressed they are.
  • since 60 years there are studies going on (in the Swiss, and nearby, in Freiburg/Germany), but without much[sic!] evidence.
  • Whether the people are dead or not is normally not clear. Death by heart is the normal criteria, rarely: by brain.
  • The experience of time does not fit to the experience of time for people awake (Doctores), but is more like in a dream. A long journey in a dream may only last a few minutes in real sleep.
  • Not everybody who was declared to be death, but 'came back' has NDE, and not everybody who has NDE was clinicly death.
  • Nearly 1/3 of the experiences isn't about light and wonderful feelings (2/3), but about pain and horror.
  • People in the western world 'experience' to fly to heaven, while people in China tend to move into the earth, which is congruent to the culture, which surrounds the people.
  • People today in the swiss 'meat' relatives during their NDE, like mother, grandmother and so on. A farmer in the 13th century meats his whole village and Karl der Große. Friar in the 8 Century meet their whole cloister. This reflects pretty much the trend to individualism during that time in our culture. Former experiences talk about an old, wise man - today, people experience a white light. The stories are getting more abstract.
  • he becomes a bit angry about the question, whether this isn't prove, that all this is hallucination. I couldn't follow how he countered that.
  • He emphasized, that in contrast to religious believes, there is a continuation of identity and a continuation of feelings, of felt body awareness.
  • most western people today don't connect their experience with religion, but mystic and transcendence.
  • There are comparing studies of West- and East-Germany. More bad experiences in the former DDR (socialistic, atheistic staate), but not comparable to the pictures from hell, which where often found in the US.
  • He would like to do much more research, but would need money to do so.

There were more arguments made, so if you speak german, watch the video and correct or complete me.

In sum, it was a differentiated view on the facts, and afaik a honest presentation of the known facts, as far as he knows them. Weak, in the absence of natural science, but aware of this weakness.

One thing bothered me often: The acceptance of the term NDE. The people did not die. They survived, and their living went on. So why name it 'near death'? He is on the one hand aware of this fact, and tells it that way himself, but few sentences later he says, that, while it isn't objectively near death, the people experience it as such. But since no living being had experienced the death nobody can, not even subjectively, claim to have knowledge, how close to a real death experience it is. It's just a projection, an illusion. But I guess that's the strength of the talk: While this person has a different opinion about the conclusions of the facts, he doesn't mud the water but is a reliable source of his observations.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .